why won’t my company fire my terrible coworker?

A reader writes:

I have a permanent position at a government office and there’s a temp who’s consistently doing sub-par work, and with a terrible attitude to boot. It’s extreme — filing documents and cases as completed without doing them at all to boost her performance numbers, losing checks, leaving difficult work undone or hiding it in various folders, using her office phone for social calls for hours and hours. She is famously rude as well — attempting to speak to her, especially to raise any concerns about her work (as we inevitably have to pick up after her), leads to her simply turning her chair away from the speaker and refusing to acknowledge them.

The managers are aware of this problem — or at least, I don’t see how they can’t be. No less than five people in the office have independently raised various issues with her work, over and over the past eight months. Each time, the manager nods and says they’ll take care of it, but they simply tell her to look at an area she’s been neglecting and then leave her to it. (This does not work.)

The cherry on top is that as a temp, her contract has been due to expire — twice. We have also gone through recruitment intakes — twice. Each time, management extends her contract, and we are baffled.

Is there a reason beyond us that they might be doing this? Her poor work ethic and attitude is impossible to ignore. And either way, is there anything we can do about it, if speaking to her and raising it with the managers does not work?

Typically when someone this terrible still has a job, the reason is one of these:

* The person’s manager can’t bring herself to have a hard conversation. Telling someone their performance is unacceptable sucks! Firing someone sucks! But it’s part of the job as a manager — and yet plenty of managers neglect this responsibility because they don’t want to have a difficult conversation. Of course, by neglecting to deal with it, they’re being just as negligent as the bad employee is. Dealing with these sorts of problems is as much a manager’s job as filing cases correctly is part of your temp’s job.

* The person’s manager thinks it will take too much time and energy to find, hire, and train a replacement. This is rarely true. While hiring can indeed be a pain, it’s short-term pain, and living with a low performer is long-term pain. Plus, as with the point above, it’s not okay for a manager to not do a major portion of their job because it feels too onerous or overwhelming.

* The person’s manager feels sorry for them. It’s normal to feel compassion for someone who might lose their job. Compassion is good! But it’s far kinder to be direct with the person about what the problems are, clearly explain what needs to change, and give them a (time-limited) chance to make the needed changes. And ironically, in their quest to be kind to the person who’s struggling, managers who avoid dealing with performance problems are being tremendously unkind to everyone else, whose own work and quality of life is affected by having to work with someone like your temp.

* The manager is hoping the person will leave on their own. Again, this is a terrible approach, and just as negligent as seeing that sales are down and hoping they’ll improve on their own with no intervention. This approach could mean putting up with years of poor performance (which means: frustrating and demoralizing the rest of their staff), all to avoid having an awkward conversation.

* The manager misunderstands the law. Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people because a person happens to be a certain race, age, or religion, or because they happen to be pregnant or have a disability. That’s not how the law works, and managers have a responsibility to educate themselves about that (although that can be hard to do if they’re working with HR people who encourage the same misconception, which is a thing that happens). Another variation of this is that the company requires so much paperwork over such a long period of time (out of a misguided belief that they need to do that to cover their asses legally) that managers conclude it’s not worth the trouble and don’t bother to deal with it. You mentioned you work in government, and this is often a thing there.

* And in some cases, the person is protected by someone important. This is rarer than the other items on this list, but sometimes you get an incompetent person who’s never going to be fired because they’re connected to a VIP (which could be anyone from the CEO to an outside funder). Another variation of this is a person who’s connected to the community in ways that make the employer worry they’ll face significant backlash for firing them (you sometimes see this in nonprofits, churches, and other organizations with a significant social/emotional component to the work).

In your temp’s case, your management’s inaction is particular egregious, since she’s a temp — the whole point is that it’s supposed to be easy to stop working with her. Even if they were too wimpy to fire her, her contract ending makes this as easy as it could possibly get, and yet for some reason they’re extending her contract. Who knows which of the items on the list above could be in play, but I’d bet significant money that the first one — overall wimpiness — is playing a major role.

That said, I’m curious about how direct you and your co-workers have been when you’ve talked to managers about the issue. Have you soft-pedaled the problems, as people sometimes do when they raise complaints about someone else’s work? If so, now’s the time for a much more direct, assertive conversation — as in, “Jane’s work is unacceptable and is interfering with our ability to meet work goals. I know she’s been warned repeatedly, but the problems have continued. We need to replace her — what do we need to do to get a different temp in to do this work?” Approach it as if of course you can’t keep on a temp whose work is this bad; sometimes that framing can jar an oblivious or conflict-avoidant manager into realizing they’re going to need to act.

Also, you said people have talked to “managers” — you should be talking to the person with direct authority over the temp, and if that produces no action, possibly to that person’s boss. And depending on your role, it might help to have your own manager use their own clout to push this.

But if that doesn’t get any action, then the conclusion to draw is that you’re working for a company that for some reason is willing to tolerate incredibly poor performance and rude behavior. Usually when that’s the case, and it’s allowed to continue this long, there are other issues too, like bosses who won’t make tough decisions, a low performance bar across the staff, and a lack of strong management skills in general. In other words, it’s not really about the temp at all; she’s one symptom of a much bigger problem.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 256 comments… read them below }

  1. RG*

    I feel like the “government office” piece here is also an important part of the answer and I’m surprised it didn’t factor in. But I’ll admit to no personal experience working in one. Anyone who has have any thoughts?

    1. Transformer*

      Agreed. I would think the government office has a union component that makes any discipline process very clear, but with multiple steps. Maybe the managers think the discipline process is too onerous?

      1. LadyKelvin*

        But not if they are temps. That’s the reason why (my) government offices hire temps, because they are easy to hire. Many people who work here started out as contractors then when government posted a position, they applied and got it. Its much better to hire someone who has already proven themselves then get stuck with someone awful who is hard to fire.

          1. Contracts Killer*

            I agree with your point that bureaucracy would not be in play. At least in my state, temps are used because (1) they are easier to fire if necessary and (2) due to hiring freezes, it is the only way to add necessary staff.

            However, even despite using temps specifically so an agency can remove them if it’s not working out, I have seen temps kept past their usefulness many times. I think the reluctance comes from this general anti-firing mindset that comes from working for government. You get so used to the idea that people don’t fire anyone (employee or otherwise) that it’s really hard to move past that inertia. I wonder if the OP has seen that before.

            1. Safetykats*

              I think a lot of the time managers don’t realize you don’t even have to talk to a subcontractor to let them go. You just have to call Contracts and say that they aren’t working out. It’s up to their own employer to convey the information that they won’t be coming back.

              In fact, our Contracts people advise us against having these kinds of conversations directly with subs.

              1. A different fed*

                From my experience as gov’t worker, they still have to pay out the contract once person is hired regardless of what kind of employee they are. And there is hiring freeze. Anybody is better than nobody seems to be prevailing thought as you cannot hire. It is still one for three people leaving at many places. Top positions are being filled far more so than people who actually do the nuts and bolts work. So once they have paid for the bad employee, the money is gone to get a good employee.
                Personally, in this case, I have no idea why they renewed the contract. Seems like at that point, they could have replaced the person. I am not in charge of contracting for personnel.

          2. JessaB*

            Well even with temps there may be rules you have to follow. But in this case there’s a finite contract date. Unless the rule are extremely weird about “must renew THIS contractor unless documented problems, because it’s easier to renew than to re-contract,” in which case the problem is the same as with any firing, they’re not documenting discipline. I’ve been the kind of contractor where there’s an understanding once we fill it, that person stays unless there’s an issue. The contract is kind of a default thing because of where the funding comes from, but they’re not really the kind of contracts you don’t renew. it’s not quite the same as hiring a temp agency type worker, where “don’t come in tomorrow,” is easier.

            Also, it’s possible that there’s an office or person who has the job of basically batch renewing this stuff, as long as funding is there and they’re not specifically TOLD don’t renew this. And it’s possible that wishy washy managers are leaving them out of the loop and they’re just ticking the “renew all the s-fund contracts, don’t renew the z-fund ones, as we don’t have any z money any more,” box.

      2. Marie*

        Typically, temporary employees are not part of the union, and therefore, are not afforded the protection of the union contract, so it is unlikely the union is a factor. More likely than not, she is an at-will employee who can be fired for any (legal) reason and this is a case of poor management or she knows someone who is protecting here.

        1. Brett*

          In government, non-union employees are still covered by Loudermill rights, which gives them rights to due process in firing just like a union member.
          This doesn’t mean that the contract with the temp cannot be renewed. That is not protected by Loudermill rights. But terminating the temp employee before their contract is up probably is (_if_ they are a direct employee of the government and not actually the employee of a private outsource company).

    2. Lil Fidget*

      Well, Alison did point it out in terms of adding red tape to firing, especially if the person is in a protected class. Although I didn’t realize that would be a factor in not renewing a temp.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Apologies if this is an unhelpful nitpick (and Alison, feel free to delete), but I think it’s an important issue that folks tend to misunderstand (and, as a result, perpetuate inequity when they talk about it)

        There’s no such thing as being in or out of a protected class. “Race” is a protected class; specific races are not protected or unprotected. “Gender” is a protected class; women aren’t specifically protected.

        Why this matters: In this context, folks talk about people in “protected classes” as though people of color/women/older folks/etc. enjoy special protections in the workplace… when in fact they are more often negatively impacted. Employment disparities invariably favor white folks, younger employees, etc.

        1. BPT*

          Yes – with the exception of age, because federal law only protects those that are 40+, although some state laws may protect younger workers.

          1. Specialk9*

            Yeah, but come on. While *technically* illegal to discriminate against anyone based on any variation of age, gender, or ethnicity, let’s be real here – those laws were made because a shit ton of discrimination happened in very specific patterns. Against women, against people of color, against older people (in many cultures/industries; reversed in others). And other systematic discrimination isn’t even covered by laws.

            I work with employment lawyers, and they scrutinize the layoff lists carefully, because after the lawsuit, a judge is much more likely to think that yes, eliminating someone who is in a historically oppressed group (person of color, woman, older person, gay, etc) is problematic in a way that eliminating someone in a historically advantaged group isn’t.

            And I’m delighted that they check – I’m mostly in historically advantaged groups, and am aware how much has been given to me.

            I get the point of the clarification, but it seems like splitting hairs.

        2. Lil Fidget*

          Interesting! I didn’t realize this nuance. I would have said that age discrimination only applies to people over a certain age, for example – so you can’t call discrimination if you believe you were fired for being too young for the job, as that is not a protected class. In that case, people over 40 are in the protected class, people under 40 are not.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            I also would have said like “pregnant women” were a protected class (which was actually the example I was thinking of in the case of my org).

          2. Millennial Lawyer*

            This varies by state and municipality, even. Federal law is 40+, cities and states may have broader views (see: New York State and City)

          3. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            There are a few nuances — like as BPT pointed out, only older workers (over 40) are protected. I’m not familiar with regulations around pregnancy, but it looks like Alison has a post coming with more information soon.

          1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            Yay, thank you!

            I think there’s misunderstanding on this topic… and I think it sometimes when we talk about this we use the “protected class” language as a way to express our own biases in a way that feels safe.

          2. Different anon*

            Is there a word missing? You say “Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people because of the person’s race, age, or religion, or because they’re pregnant or have a disability.” But they really can’t.
            They can’t fire someone because they are black, or because they are 34, or Hindu, or pregnant, or disabled.
            They CAN fire a 34 year old pregnant black Hindu because they are not doing they their job. They just can’t fire them for the 34 year old black pregnant Hindu part.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, it was worded poorly. I meant they mistakenly think they can’t fire someone because the person happens to be race X or gender Y or because they happen to be pregnant or have a disability (as opposed to those things being the reason for the firing). The wording is confusing though, and I’ve asked my editor to fix it.

            2. Lil Fidget*

              I think the point is they also can’t fire a 50 year old white male christian, if they’re firing him for those reasons. I think?

              1. Someone else*

                Right, the intention was “they think because the person is X, they cannot fire that person at all, even for incompetence”, not that the being X is ever an acceptable cause for termination.

          3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Oh, I’m so glad! People get this messed up all the time, and often it creates the problems Victoria mentioned. I appreciate the call out and the upcoming post.

        3. MassMatt*

          I also cringe a little bit when I hear this misused as it reinforces the “reverse discrimination” myth. Race is a protected class, meaning you cannot hire or fire (or deny promotions etc) based on someone’s race, whether they are black, white, Hispanic etc is immaterial, there is no protected race. Same with gender and the other categories.

    3. peachie*

      Not personally, but I know from friends and acquaintances who have worked in federal government offices that it can be REALLY hard to fire someone. (This is from both folks like the LW who want someone fired and folks who who are the [deserved] firee.)

      1. LSP*

        I have heard stories from during my own time in government that even after months or years of drinking on the job, someone only got fired after killing someone while drunk driving in front of a government office building.

        I knew someone else who hit a co-worker during work hours, but only got fired after telling off the COMMISSIONER of her department, after he told her daughter not to block the fire lane with her car.

        1. Just another fed*

          The ridiculous government firing story I heard about was a guy who brought a gun to work and opened fire, got arrested, then was fired for excessive absences when he was in jail…

      2. Antilles*

        See, but the difference here is that they wouldn’t actually need to fire her since she’s a contract employee. They just decide to not renew her contract and bam, problem solved, no issues with bureaucracy, union, government firing procedures, etc.
        The fact that management has *chosen* to renew her contract (twice!) is a pretty clear sign that “hard for government to fire people” is just a red herring, not the real cause here.

        1. soon 2be former fed*

          Government contracts pro here. All contracts have performance and termination clauses. Whoever is supposed to be monitoring the slackers performance should notify the contracting officer so action can be taken. Somebody is not doing their job.

        2. JessaB*

          There is however a big reason that sometimes they renew anyway, if there is a hiring freeze AND this contract is under a special fund, they A: cannot replace the person and B: might forever going forward lose that amount of funding, since they can’t replace that person, why give them the money, but in that case most bosses are smart enough to put the person where they can’t do damage til they CAN fire them and keep the slot and the money.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It sounds like they have the ability to replace the temp with a temp, though? If that’s the case, then I suspect they’re shirking their responsibility to hire someone competent and/or are shirking their responsibility to monitor performance and act on performance problems.

      3. Specialk9*

        Feds essentially can’t be fired after a year. Contractors can be fired with impunity. I’ve seen it happen.

    4. Mike C.*

      I think that excuse has a lot more bark than bite. For some strange reason the rest of the developed world relies on documentation to fire someone for cause and their economies don’t come screaming to a halt so I have a hard time believing it’s always the case here.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I’ve never worked in government but from talking to lots of people who do, it seems like you absolutely can fire people as long as you’re willing to put in time and a lot of paperwork (and sometimes deal with a ridiculous amount of hoop-jumping).

        1. Anonymous for this one*

          My husband works at the US Department of Justice in a branch that defends the different federal agencies from lawsuits by employees who’ve been terminated, and it is definitely possible to fire someone and have it stick. The grounds for termination just have to be meticulously documented and the agency’s termination has to be followed.

        2. Mike C.*

          I work in a heavily unionized environment and you can fire people by doing things like “documenting specific issues”. Even then, you get lazy managers who throw their hands up in the air at “all that paperwork” which is absolutely nuts given the amount of paperwork required to do anything else useful here.

          I would even go so far as to suggest that the complaints about paperwork act in part as cover for not wanting to have difficult conversations, as you point out.

          1. Lil Fidget*

            It’s true, I’d say the places most likely to have a lot of paperwork around this are places where … there’s a lot of paperwork anyway, and doing it is already a pretty big part of the job.

          2. Spider*


            We had someone working here (library) for years (“Susan”) who would come to work drunk, have screaming drunken meltdowns, and at least twice had to be taken away in handcuffs by the police for her behavior while drunk. She was also incredibly hostile and belligerent to everyone who interacted with her, including our patrons, and almost everyone was afraid to talk to her at all because you never knew when she’d start screaming at you.

            This was allowed to continue for literally 20+ years because her boss (“Joe”) and her boss’s boss (“Madeleine”) were both shamefully incompetent at their jobs and never documented anything, and whenever Susan got a whiff of “they’re thinking to fire me,” she would go to her union rep with a sob story and point to the lack of documentation as proof that her coworkers were making up lies about her. The union in turn contacted a bunch of Susan’s departmental coworkers to get their side of the story, but no one wanted to make a formal report and/or have their name on the record complaining about Susan, since she was so volatile and hostile.

            Needless to say, Susan’s continued employment was also damaging to everyone’s morale, because of the mentality of “Hey, why should I worry about getting in trouble for [this minor thing] when Susan’s been coming in drunk every day this week and just screamed at a patron, and no one seems to care?”

            Then Madeleine retired and one of Joe’s peers (“Carla”) was appointed as an interim fill in that position. Carla had had an office directly across from Susan’s desk for ten years and had witnessed all of the screaming, drunken meltdowns, etc. I don’t know exactly how Carla did it, but dealing with Susan was her top priority and within her first month in her interim position, she had Susan fired and Joe stripped of his managerial duties. Without the 20+ years of documentation Susan thought Carla needed to do it.

            IT WAS AWESOME. Just thinking about this now has cheered me up. Yes, Virginia, there are consequences for shitty employees even in a heavily unionized workplace and with shitty managers who don’t do their jobs!!

            1. Decima Dewey*

              Even in civil service, there are some things that are firing offenses. Falsifying a time sheet, breaking the rules they tell you about on your first day. My system has a residency requirement: employees have to live in Philadelphia. One supervisor they wanted to fire had a relative’s address on file as his city address–then one day he came in with a sick note from a New Jersey doctor. So, they followed him home, ascertained he was living in New Jersey, and fired him. Far from the worst thing he did, but like Al Capone and tax evasion, that’s what got him fired.

              1. De Minimis*

                At my former job [Federal healthcare] a doctor was terminated because he saw a patient while his license was invalid [he was waiting for them to receive a payment he had sent, but was only supposed to be doing admin work until the renewal.] Huge liability, and he was fired [though was later allowed to retire] almost on the spot.

                Generally the stuff that will get you immediately fired in the private sector will also get you immediately fired in the government sector.

          3. Academic Addie*

            I agree. I work in an environment (can you guess which?) that straddles the government-private line. You certainly do need to be proactive about documenting performance issues, and there are policies and procedures, but you can absolutely fire people. And frankly, I appreciate that. I don’t really want someone firing people if they aren’t taking notes and thinking carefully about performance. Humans are bad at remembering things, or conflating emotions with facts, and I’d prefer to know that issues are being documented rather than relying on memory.

            1. JessaB*

              And it’s remarkably easy to remember all Jon’s failings and then completely not realise you’re letting Anna get away with the same things. Documentation is important.

        3. Anon today*

          One factor that makes it harder in some government agencies is that in a union environment you may end up in court or arbitration if the union protests the firing. We’ve had people get their jobs back after they were fired for egregious things – safety violations, assaults, things that make the local news. So managers who have a low-performing employee who’s a drag but not actually criminal don’t have a lot of motivation to go through the hassle of firing the person, because the perception is that it rarely sticks.

          I’m actually pretty pro-labor overall. But there are some places where it’s gone pretty far awry.

          1. Mike C.*

            Just follow the process and have a working relationship with the union instead of treating them like the enemy. Look at the sorts of collaborative environments you have in places like Germany where management and labor work together for the benefit of all company stakeholders and even have representation on the board of directors.

            1. Anon today*

              Our largest union regularly stages protests outside of our board meetings, or attends them only to stage walkouts from them. So I like the ideals you present, but there are decades of complicated history that mean that we aren’t going to get there any time soon.

              And in the meantime, the mid-level managers in my part of the agency won’t go to the trouble to fire people who have done no work for decades.

            2. Anonymous Poster*

              This is definitely a your mileage will vary situation. I’ve seen unions just double check to make sure the process was followed, then thank management for dumping the person that made everyone else look bad. I’ve also seen unions go to the mat to defend someone that wouldn’t show up, except for those times they did only to fall asleep all shift and cause massive operational problems.

              It just really depends.

          2. JustaCPA*

            I recall an AAM letter writer whose union protected an employee who clearly shoudl have been fired. I think it was over an emergency phone call not being transmitted?

        4. Millennial Lawyer*

          Without giving much away, my job specifically deals with this, and it IS possible to fire someone. Just requires clear documentation.

        5. Where's the Le-Toose?*

          As a manager in state government, the hoops and paperwork are so insane compared to the private sector that, believe it or not, many government managers don’t discipline employees because of the bureaucracy that comes with it.

          I had one employee who was offered the ability to resign before termination. I had to document 2.5 years of egregious conduct before our HR department and agency head said there was enough evidence to result in termination.

          I also have a current employee who has been on a PIP for about 5 years with no discipline. I’ve been documenting subpar work for 5 years and our HR department and agency head keep sweeping it under the table but confirming with me that the employee is “terrible” and “needs to go.” Only recently has our HR department authorized discipline–a 5% pay cut. And HR has been sitting on the charging documents for 7 months, and the discipline has yet to be carried out.

          But wait, there’s more! Because of the new U.S. tax withholding rate, this employee’s take home pay will go up 3%, so the employee will have essentially a 2% pay cut after discipline. And this summer, with our state contract, everyone is getting a 4% raise, regardless of job performance. So after 5 years of documenting terrible work, this employee will essentially get a 2% raise.

          There are so many of us who want to clean up government service, but it takes the patience of Job to get it done.

          1. PlainJane*

            Yep. State agency middle manager here. I’ve already run afoul of our HR when trying to discipline someone for behavior that was addressed in their PIP. I didn’t wait long enough after the first warning to issue the second warning (6 weeks–and a couple of instances of the behavior–apparently wasn’t enough). And our workers aren’t unionized. I keep fighting the good fight, but it’s demoralizing, and I can understand why some managers decide their time is better spent supporting good performers.

        6. soon 2be former fed*

          Long time fed here. People can and do get fired but for performance issues pips are mandatory. Depending on the nature of the misconduct, progressive discipline may apply, or not. There are generally no here today gone tomorrow situations, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. But it is a myth that people can’t/don’t get fired.

        7. Brett*

          The big difference in government is that the employee inherently has a property right in continued employment and due process rights related to that property right. In simple terms, firing an employee is the same as executing eminent domain on their house.
          So, the employee always has a right to a hearing on the merits of their termination _before_ being terminated, and a separate full evidentiary hearing _after_ being terminated. The technical details are deep; you have to be careful of when you make a recommendation to terminate based on evidence versus when you make the actual decision to terminate. The former is okay without a Loudermill hearing, but the later is not. If you make the decision to terminate before the hearing, the employee will get their job back. A good example is presenting the evidence to the mayor and the mayor sends an email back saying to fire the employee, that’s a violation of Loudermill rights because the mayor made the decision to terminate before a Loudermill hearing could be held (Gross v. Village of Minerva Park Village Council et al).

          And that’s where the last part comes in. Even if you do all the time and paperwork, survive the Loudermill hearing, and survive the post-termination evidentiary hearing, the employee can still take you to court for a 14th amendment violation for denying them property without due process of law. In my experience, most employees who go this far win. (But most will not go that far.)

          1. t*

            So a government job is considered the property of the employee? That is so strange. Why is a government job property and private sector one is not?

      2. Beanie*

        Our problem employee was only dealt with after he was found drunk, high, and publically urinating at work (all on the same day). This was because the HR director was on campus for another of his missed PIP meetings and witnessed this fall-down drunkness around students. Even then their only solution was to transfer him (to a non-student/easier job). While he eventually got pushed out on an “early retirement” HR’s excuse about union regulations were complete crap. HR was just negligent. This guy never did his job, was found napping in random corners of the school at various times, sexually harassed most of the female faculty (including myself) and ultimately endangered students – and we had to put up with him for decades.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Agreed. In my experience, folks don’t want to deal with the additional process afforded to public employees (those processes are there to prevent retaliation, cronyism, and masked nepotism). I’ve also seen folks fail to document problems, so then when the straw that breaks the camel’s back comes along, the documentation for the last event is insufficient to merit firing without first attempting progressive discipline. A lot of this could be solved by diligent documentation and a commitment to following the process requirements so that when they fire someone for a bigger problem, the firing sticks.

    5. Malibu Stacey*

      I worked in govt for my first job. Our Union rules/statutory requirements didn’t apply to temps. We could just choose not renew the temp contract like in the private sector.

      1. eplawyer*

        This is the part I don’t get. The contracts have come up for renewal. The perfect time to end the employment with no paperwork. The issue of hiring someone doesn’t come up either because they’ve started that process.

        All I can think is even though it’s government, this person is protected somehow. Either by a higher up or by a belief they are a protected class so can’t be just let go.

        1. Luna*

          Not necessarily, this happened at my last job- guy was a temp for months, everyone knew he was incompetent and had a terrible attitude, but for some reason the managers decided to actively hire him for the full-time, permanent position (most positions were temp-to-perm there, so after ~3-4 months the temp had to be either let go or offered the permanent job). It was only after some other higher-ups discovered that this guy had lost tens of thousands of dollars out of their accounts that he was finally fired.

          Some people will do almost anything to avoid firing someone, no matter how easy or how justified it is.

        2. soon 2be former fed*

          And contracts can be terminated for non-performance. Federal contracting officer here.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I don’t think the person is protected or perceived to be protected. I think the managers don’t want to deal with the additional “hassle” of identifying and training a new temp… which is absurd given that this person seems like a complete energy and productivity suck.

          I’ve found managerial incompetence or unwillingness to deal with the disciplinary and performance side of management (a form of incompetence) explain far more situations where someone wasn’t fired than the erroneous belief that the failing employee is in a protected class.

    6. Naruto*

      I would be surprised if government employment practices are as big of a factor here–with a temp–as they might be in other cases involving permanent employees.

    7. Kittymommy*

      I work in government and not all, in fact most, are nite union. All white collar and most pink collar are not unionized. Now w sou have an employee handbook to follow for write ups, etc., but most everyone is at will. (And do get fired).

      1. Where's the Le-Toose?*

        It depends on which government you work for. Being a union shop is not as relevant as whether your employer has civil service protections. In my state, California, everyone gets several due process hearings before termination not because of union protection but because of civil service protection.

    8. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      I work at a state university, and we have pretty strict rules about termination. Every new hire undergoes a 6 month probationary period, where it is fairly easy to fire them, but once you get past that 6 month mark – it’s like smooth sailing. We have tons of people who should have been fired, but the paperwork can be ridiculous. Even good managers who do document thoroughly and do their best to manage the employee often get stonewalled by HR because of the fear of discrimination suits.

    9. Andrea*

      Ever work for a major corporation? Same thing happens ALL OF THE TIME! The people in question? The management.

    10. Doe-Eyed*

      Yeah I work in a government office. My managers frequently keep people who are awful because in the past when we’ve gotten rid of awful people we have gotten abyssmal people. Even from temps. Better the devil you know, etc.

    11. TG*

      In my experience, getting rid of a poorly performing government worker is not impossible, but it does take work and few are willing to go to the trouble. Which is baffling when the trouble it costs them in the work not getting done, angry coworkers, etc. often amounts to more trouble than just firing someone already.

    12. Casper Lives*

      Absolutely. It’s hard and unrewarding to hire a government employee after their one year probationary period, so why bother? Source: experience government employees, aka why I’m in the private sector.

    13. halfmanhalfshark*

      That stood out to me, too. I have worked in a government office and the reason why terrible employees were rarely fired there were 1) managers misunderstanding the union contract and assuming anyone in a union couldn’t be fired; 2) managers were scared of the union filing a grievance; and 3) political connections. The last one was actually pretty huge, even with regard to temps. (NB: I worked for a notoriously corrupt state government so even this won’t always be applicable.)

  2. Lil Fidget*

    Ahh the mysteries of why some people are seemingly untouchable while otherwise solid-seeming people get canned for not being exceptional. I have seen it happen at the exact same company. One factor, I often see it in employees who have been there for a very long time. I don’t know if it’s just familiarity or if they have a lot of institutional knowledge the company is afraid to lose.

    1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      This is the case with a coworker in my last department, The Office Jerk. He’s been at my state university almost 20 years and has a TON of institutional knowledge. His work is decent, but he’s rude, belligerent, and outright insubordinate sometimes. He’s alienated pretty much everyone he’s worked with. But he’s kept around because of his tenure, and the fact that our termination process is incredibly tedious. The required documentation is insane, especially since his work output is okay. Our HR doesn’t seem to care if you are being mean and defiant, only that you get results!

      1. Lil Fidget*

        I suppose you could also guess that the boss thinks they’re retire soon anyway so it’s not worth pursuing. Of course, this type of person may be the never-retire, ‘carry me out on my shield’ type so it could still be a sucker’s bet.

        1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

          I think that’s what management is hoping, but he is that type of guy – also he’s threatened to quit countless times and it never happens. He’ll probably never leave! Which is one reason I got another job, and I’m so much happier. :)

      2. Anonnn*

        I worked at a college under a large statewide system and one of our neighboring colleges had a termination policy something close to this: Employee must receive three consecutive poor performance reviews within a two year period before being terminated for poor performance. Performance reviews happened once a year…

        I wish I knew the exact wording because it was basically this ridiculous.

    2. Alienor*

      My department is overseen by a person who has a lot of tenure/institutional knowledge and is also protected by more than one VIP. They’re a horrible leader and manager, ruin everything they touch, and have no business being in their position, but they will never, ever be let go. It’s super frustrating and is one of the main things that makes me daydream about quitting (and occasionally apply for other jobs). I wish higher-ups were better at seeing how people like that impact everyone’s morale.

    3. AC*

      This just happened at my company! A totally solid guy in his first real job after school (so some growing pains, but he worked hard, was smart, and turned in decent work) got fired after a year mostly because his direct manager was on a bit of a power trip and somehow railroaded through a PIP that ended in termination.

      Meanwhile, I can count multiple people in my department who are much worse employees despite having 10+ years experience , and they’ve never received so much as a stern talking-to. It boggles the mind.

      1. Julia the Survivor*

        This is so, so discouraging for the young man in his first real job! You do good work, do your best, get good feedback… and then get fired. I’ve been there more than once. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to work and would never be good enough. I thought about turning to crime.
        I’m sure direct manager doesn’t care, though. It sounds like he’s focused on other things than the work or personal qualities of the employees. I wonder what.

  3. Malibu Stacey*

    Or sometimes there’s a hiring freeze and the manager knows she won’t get a job req to replace the temp if they leave. Even so, sometimes it’s still better to be doing two jobs than one job + fixing all of your coworker’s mistakes. (Ask me how I know.)

    1. AwkwardestTurtle*

      I wondered about this too – If the managers were afraid they wouldn’t be able to replace her if she got fired because of budgetary reasons?

    2. CheeryO*

      Yes, this is the major reason why no one ever gets fired at my government agency (including temps/seasonal hires) – there is no guarantee of getting a replacement, so it’s pretty much accepted that a certain percentage of people are incompetent and need to be worked around until they retire or otherwise go off into the sunset. It’s maddening, but fortunately we don’t have too many people like that.

      1. soon 2be former fed*

        Temp workers are hired via agencies and the agency that holds the award can be required to replace an unsatisfactory worker. Lazy uncaring manager here.

        1. Brett*

          Depends on the agency and level of government.
          Lots of local governments are not allowed to use agency temps in budgeted positions. They have to use direct hire temps or direct hire seasonal workers.
          (They can use agency temps as statement-of-work contracts, but they do not count as agency headcount that has no effect on your budgeted positions.)

    3. Higher Ed Database Dork*

      Yes! I had a coworker like that. He was so incompetent it would take me and my team hours to clean up his messes. We told our bosses that we’d accept the position not being filled if it meant we didn’t have to deal with him anymore. My state university often goes through hiring freezes, and even when it doesn’t, the administration is always happy to reclaim position funds, so there’s a very real risk of losing the position if you remove someone from it.

      1. Narise*

        Higher Ed: I had that same experience and even after we told our manager we would do the work without worthless employee he wouldn’t terminate him. So instead we started pushing back on fixing items the employee messed up. MGR brought one of us something to fix we looked at it and said ‘This is his work. Take it to him.’ Soon the manager was spending all of his time correcting worthless employees work and was in danger of not meeting deadlines. Finally the employee was let go. Slowly we started picking up his work again but MGR had to dig himself out of that whole a bit first. I know this can’t always be done in every situation.

        1. Higher Ed Database Dork*

          We definitely did that with some of the smaller things, but we were working at a support desk for one of the school’s major applications, and some stuff just couldn’t be dropped. But when it could – we definitely kicked it back to manager! I think that experience really opened my manager’s eyes to what my team actually did – he was always very hands-off and just kind of mediocre, but he stepped up his game since that terrible employee.

    4. AnonEMoose*

      I would so much rather just have to do the work than have to take the time to figure out what someone else screwed up and fix it. For one thing, if I’m just doing the work, I can usually find ways to do it as efficiently as possible. But there’s just no way to make the process of finding someone else’s mistakes that much more efficient.

      1. MassMatt*

        but I think some managers’ self esteem and perceived prestige in the organiztion comes from the number of employees they have. I’ve never understood this mindset, are people that shallow that they puff out their chests having a team of 10 versus the other manager with only 9 employees even though their 10 includes dead wood? Sadly, yes.

    5. Natalie*

      With temps, specifically, my experience around this has been different. The Whatever Temp Position at $1 has been approved, so if the specific person needs to be replaced the temp agency just finds you a new person. It’s not much different than if you hire a janitorial company and they have turnover. You don’t have to get each new janitor approved, you’ve already approved a Janitor Contract.

      If there’s any kind security clearance I suppose that might be different.

    6. Trout 'Waver*

      I’ve been in this position. I had a guy who was doing the bare minimum at his job, and I had been told I wouldn’t get to replace him if I fired him. His marginal contribution was still needed to complete a major project.

      The only thing I could really do was make sure my star performers knew that I recognized their contributions and ride out the completion of the project.

    7. bb-great*

      yes, often the hiring in government is just as onerous as firing. So it could be circumventing a hiring freeze or just not wanting to go through the hiring process again.

    8. Kelly*

      Another Higher Ed Person: There was an unofficial hiring freeze where I work for a couple years, and even now with retirements and people leaving for other jobs, maybe 3 out of every 5 vacant positions are filled. There’s also at the very least a 6 month gap between the time the person leaves and the new person starts.

      My office hired a new person last year to replace someone who retired. The new person is very nice, but honestly isn’t interested in doing a core part of her job. It’s normal for her to be out of the office at meetings for at least a couple hours a day. She’s also still nursing her baby and spends at least an hour a day pumping. Because she’s still nursing, she’s eating more and has to eat multiple times a day. If she’s in her office half the day, that’s a good day. Her one year probationary review is soon and she’ll likely pass it, because my boss used up a lot of goodwill and political capital to get her hired. The boss as a result can’t get any extra money now, including much needed extra money for student help.

      It’s not worth losing a position by firing someone who isn’t meeting expectations. It’s very unlikely that we’d get approval to find another person.

    9. Brett*

      Came here to say this.
      This has become a very common practice in state and local government in our area since 2007. If an employee is quit or terminated, they are considered an attrition loss if the position is not filled. They are not considered a layoff or job cut for the purposes of budgeting.
      Chief elected officials love this, because it allows them to “not cut the budget or services” while actually eliminating positions.
      It is worse than a hiring freeze, because the position will be gone permanently if you let anyone go. At least with a hiring freeze, the position might come back some day.

  4. NW Mossy*

    In my organization, it’s almost always #1 (avoiding a hard conversation) when it happens. I see it most often when the employee in question gets particularly defensive when they get negative feedback, because it’s challenging for folks in our generally conflict-averse organization to have conversations that are likely to involve an argument.

    Having been through a few of those conversations myself, they are legitimately awful ones to have to have. Your adrenaline gets up and depending on how easily you handle someone combative, you may start yelling yourself, back down when you shouldn’t, or otherwise end up somewhere you didn’t intend at the outset. I’ve certainly felt sick to my stomach both before and after, and I’ve definitely lost sleep.

    What ultimately got me over the barrier was knowing with clarity that it was part of my responsibility to the company to have these conversations, and that my own boss was expecting me to do it. Once you’ve been through it a few times it gets easier, but if your boss isn’t holding your feet to the fire on it and your natural inclination is to avoid that kind of stress, you’ll behave like the bosses at OP’s org – passively waiting for a problem to solve itself through magic.

    1. myswtghst*

      Oh, absolutely. I train new temp-to-hire employees (for hourly, customer-facing roles where butt-in-seat time is important), and I’ve noticed the managers I work with tend to immediately and without hesitation end contracts when overall great temps violate the attendance policy, but will hem and haw over ending a contract for someone with tons of behavioral issues. It seems to be because attendance is an objective thing (either you were absent X number of days / hours or you weren’t), while behavior has a more subjective feel to it (which seems to leave the door open for more push back from the temp), even when it’s meticulously documented and I communicate it regularly to the temp and the manager.

      1. Julia the Survivor*

        This attitude is common in my experience and detrimental. As a non-morning person who tends to run late, but does excellent work, I’ve come up against this many times. Employers lose employees who do good work in favor of those who can’t or won’t do more than punch a clock. Their loss!

  5. LAI*

    I’m curious how different attitudes are toward firing people in the private sector – I’m sure it varies widely from place to place. I work for a public university so we’re a little bit like a government office. It’s very rare for anyone to be fired, but I have seen people “reassigned”, or positions eliminated, or people forced into changes that seemed deliberately designed to make them so miserable that they quit. In my 12 years here, I’ve also never seen or heard of anyone being as bad at their job as the coworker described here though.

    1. Lora*

      As you said, varies widely – I’ve seen one extreme, where the cost-cutting folks cut into bone every couple of years, realize they’ve fired critical people in their zealotry, then get fired themselves for not doing a proper evaluation of who is critical to the plant function. I’ve seen the other extreme, where as a consultant I was telling management, “the best thing you can do for this department, if you won’t fire anyone, is put This A-hole into an office by themselves and make them Manager Of Porn Downloading and Cat Pictures so they won’t have to interact with any other human being, ever.”

      Another possible option I’ve seen is that somehow (it is a great mystery how) the person has impressed upon a manager or two that they have some magical technical skills which they do not in fact possess, but the managers in question are not technically inclined themselves. The non-technical manager in question then uses faulty Both-Siderism Logic to rationalize that therefore the Incompetent Technician and the Competent Technicians are actually equivalent and simply have some personal beef which is something they should work out amongst themselves.

      1. Mike C.*

        I’ve worked with consultants who are obsessed with Lean, but none that wanted in institute an actual oidashibeya.

        1. Lora*

          You never worked with Irene or Ken. Both were legendary in the Boston area biotech community, to the point that vendors and colleagues alike will blanch and look ill if their names are mentioned. Ken was fired with extreme prejudice from his last three jobs and now is out of the industry, thankfully. No idea what Irene is up to, but I bet you $1 it involves a lot of screaming and tears.

      2. Nonnon*

        “Manager Of Porn Downloading and Cat Pictures”

        Replace “porn” with “scifi audios” and I’ll apply! :P

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Generally, in private sector, it’s a little easier. And you can always give them a layoff (so they can file for unemployment) if they haven’t done anything truly egregious (such as just not being able to do the job, even though they tried). Layoff eases those hard conversations a little, and people tend to move on as long as unemployment won’t be contested. But honestly, this person is a TEMP, and that means it should be even easier to let them go! That’s the whole point of a temp worker. Or at the very least, you don’t renew their contract.

      With that being said, I’m wondering if this worker is someone’s relative? A failure to fire a really poor employee is usually related to nepotism.

      1. Mike C.*

        Being fired for “not being able to do the job” still allows someone unemployment. Otherwise employers could arbitrarily change someone’s job title to something they clearly don’t have the skills for, fire them, and never have to worry about unemployment.

        Even without that sort of abuse, it’s a given that an employer vetted someone for a position and if the person they chose tried but it didn’t work out, they shouldn’t be punished for it like they should for doing something malicious.

    3. pope suburban*

      It varies, but my experience as a temp in the private sector has been that employers view you as disposable. I’ve had contracts abruptly cut short because of some decision on the employer’s end, without any incident or bad performance on the part of my team (The sudden cancellations were, for me, more common when an employer brings on a team to do some work, and finds out they have incorrectly estimated the time or people needed). Now that I’m working in government, it’s a bit unreal to me that you actually have to do something wrong, usually more than once, in order to be fired. That’s taking some getting used to after seven or eight years of being dropped like a hot potato. That said, I’m not sure how relevant my experience temping is to this letter, because I was never that bad on assignment, or that rude to people.

      1. London Calling*

        I temped for years (UK, not US). Invariably I was on a week’s notice however long the assignment turned out to be (over two years, in one case). And I was and am very good at my job and had stellar reviews – in 13 years I was never canned for bad or substandard work – but if the company doesn’t want you/can’t afford you any more, them’s the breaks.

        1. pope suburban*

          I never got a week’s notice with any of my temp agencies. Just a call after I’d left for the last day, which was never given to me clearly, that the assignment was over. Which was a minor annoyance on the short-term assignments, but which was a real pain after I’d been at one place for four months covering maternity leave, and therefore had some stuff left at my desk that I needed to pick up. Which then they wouldn’t let me do, except the temp agency sent someone who picked up some stuff that wasn’t mine and not all of the things that were. Eventually I went back to pick up the rest myself, because this was a lot of cloak-and-dagger over a sweater and some CDs, but the temp agency was really short about it. Supposedly they do this out of “security concerns,” but like…what? I was there as a temp. I knew I was going to leave. I just needed my stuff back. This wasn’t the only agency to end an assignment that way, either. I feel like that’s a recent development, and definitely a US thing, but it was so weird to deal with. There’s nothing that seems especially secure about keeping your people in the dark like that.

          1. London Calling*

            I had one company do that to me after I’d left work one afternoon after being there three days – supposedly I wasn’t learning the job quickly enough – and the agency was as irked as I was. Largely because a) they weren’t earning from that assignment and b) the company was supposed to be dealing exclusively with the agency but hired someone else via another agency. But also, to the agency’s credit, because a valued employee had been treated in a somewhat cavalier fashion.

    4. Bea*

      I’ve always been in the private side of things. I was a temp many moons ago as well.

      I’ve only recently ran into owners who rapidly fire anyone. Most arent emotionally disconnected from everyone to the point of dropping workers for no solid reasons.

      Usually people understand you need to feel secure in your job but not like you’re irreplaceable. Until recently only being unreliable or a total screw up got you fired from my experience.

    5. Natalie*

      My private sector experience has been that the bar for getting fired is pretty high – as in, literally caught with your hand in someone’s purse or getting into an armed standoff with the police kind of high. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone fired just for being a poor performer. What I have seen is people chosen for layoffs on the basis of their performance issues rather than the importance of their specific position.

      1. Paloma Pigeon*

        … unless you work at a tech company, then it’s ‘we’re merging 20 departments this weekend and cutting 50% of the staff and reassigning their work tasks to the other 50%. But we’re always hiring!

        1. Natalie*

          Well, that’s a layoff, not a firing. Firings are specific and personal (in the sense that the person did something to cause their employment to end), layoffs are when positions are terminated.

    6. Close Bracket*

      My former employer was all about making people miserable enough to quit. Institutional passive aggression, ftw!

  6. Lil Fidget*

    Oh, and one more: sometimes departments fear that they won’t be able to back-fill the position because the higher ups will swoop in – so if Bad Employee leaves, they’ll just be down a spot, rather than getting to hire a new better employee. They decide it’s better to keep a Bad Employee who does even a fraction of a full time job rather than lose the budget line entirely. It’s still stupid though, as sooner or later everybody quits or retires.

    1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

      Yeah that might be it, here. They may have word that they can amend current contracts but not start new ones, because of the hiring freeze.

      This is the bit that confuses me:
      “We have also gone through recruitment intakes — twice. Each time, management extends her contract, and we are baffled.”
      I’m not sure what “recruitment intake” means in this context but it certainly suggests someone has permission to hire. But I’m not sure if it’s meant to be recruiting for her position or in general.

      In any case the managers really do need to manage the employee better, and if there’s a process reason she’s still here, make some discreet communication to that effect.

  7. Kramerica Industries*

    If it’s clear that Jane won’t be fired, is it inappropriate to ask the manager to…y’know, manage?

    1. Goya de la Mancha*

      but manage how….She’s clearly not doing the work, even when “spoken with” about it. There is nothing else the manager can do (if they are not at liberty to fire) is commiserate with the employees.

      1. EddieSherbert*

        I’m think one-on-one training with the manager for technical pieces of her job AND person-to-person interactions… and (ideally) a PIP with specific goals to go with that training – since it sounds like the Temp either doesn’t know how to do huge chunks of her job, or is extremely slow at it (faking cases to “raise her numbers”?), along with being a rude person who doesn’t know how to ask for help.

      2. Kramerica Industries*

        She needs to be trained/spoken to in a way that actually sticks. Is the manager just saying “don’t do it again”? Will she be put on a PIP? Is the manager giving her concrete feedback and training?

        I feel like Jane thinks that she’s untouchable because there are no real consequences or actionable courses or action. It’s like dealing with a child…you say “Don’t do it again or else” and naturally, the child asks, “Or else what?” To which you don’t have a good response.

      3. Goya de la Mancha*

        Oh I agree that she needs a PIP and stern talking to, but the point of a PIP is “Shape up or ship out”. If they can’t ship her out for whatever reason, what other “consequence” is there really.

        My guess is that it’s really in the managers court and they are just not wanting to do the heavy lifting here, but sometimes it’s out of their hands as well. Sometimes all you can do is record and sigh. :(

      4. nonymous*

        well, the manager can switch to a micromanaging approach – e.g. Do X task and come back to me for feedback/proofreading + the next item. Management can also switch duties so that low performer is doing the grunt work that no one else is excited about but they can’t mess up – like loading the copiers Y times daily (and if it doesn’t get done staff can certainly load it themselves). Finally they can make the non performer wait for their next task without access to entertainment. The last one is an old technique (I heard it from someone born in the 1920s!) to get people to quit – they are miserable and can’t create more work, ala NYC’s reassignment centers.

        from the original letter, it is hard to say whether management is actually giving specific instruction. For some low performers, it is not enough to say “don’t be rude to coworkers”, you have to tell them “I expect you to answer all questions from coworkers in a polite tone. This is part of your job and it is not acceptable to refuse to answer or turn your back”.

  8. LSP*

    I used to work at a legislative office, and we had a receptionist who sounds like she and this temp would get along famously. A brief list of our receptionist’s issues:

    – She was regularly late, even though hers was the one job that required a butt in the seat at 9 am sharp.
    – She would get aggravated if we asked her to take a message from someone so we could call them back (because we were in the middle of something more pressing), and often just refused to do so.
    – She told our chief of staff that she could EITHER answer the phones in the afternoon, OR go through the mail, but not both.
    – She couldn’t handle more than one ringing phone line, ever. She never wanted to put someone on hold, so, because we were supposed to be constituent-focused, one of the other four people who worked in the office would have to stop whatever else we were working on and answer the phone, often getting caught up in a completely derailing call from a constituent about the height of the grass on a state highway (true story). This could amount to HOURS of lost productivity per day.

    She was also incredibly rude, and spoke very openly about her medical problems whenever were eating lunch as a group in the conference room.

    My chief of staff actually put together a five page list of all of the reasons this woman needed to be let go, but because she was in her 60’s and had a few medical issues, our bosses (state legislators) were too afraid to pull the trigger on firing her. I heard that after I left, they finally told her that she would need to do more in terms of technology, or they would help her get a different job. She decided to retire instead.

      1. NaoNao*

        Me TOO. I read dozens of truly wrenching stories of people who have demonstrated abilities, skills, great references, and are working their butts off at toxic workplaces and/or are entering the danger zone of unemployment and for some reason totally incompetent and even *mean* people are getting hired and then retained!
        How are these people so universally good at interview snow jobs? Are every single one of their references just like “she’s…fine. Nothing more to say! Good luck!” and the company is like well we really need an admin so…

        I would love to understand the perfect storm that somehow keeps occurring over and over that gets these people hired? Unless the answer is “It was 1982. And she’s been here ever since.”

        Recently read “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” for a *very* illuminating look at mid-level management hiring process back in the early 50’s. You show up and ask for an interview, go out to a boozy lunch, the boss calls your boss to okay it, and then you’re done (!!!). Very different times.

        1. LSP*

          This was a case of government inertia. She had worked in various state offices her entire career, was very active the party, and people wanted to help her out in return. It’s possible she had been a good employee when she was newer to the workplace, but by the time I met her, she was rude and lazy.

        2. Purplesaurus*

          I read dozens of truly wrenching stories of people who have demonstrated abilities, skills, great references, and are working their butts off at toxic workplaces and/or are entering the danger zone of unemployment and for some reason totally incompetent and even *mean* people are getting hired and then retained!

          I want to say this doesn’t happen as often as you’d think, but then I’m actually one of those hard working people in a toxic workplace where at least one totally incompetent person was hired and retained.

        3. Nita*

          It can’t be a new problem, but for some reason I’ve seen it a lot more often in the last few years. Incompetence is “in”. It’s especially bad when one idiot gets hired at the top, brings in more idiots because they’re buddies (or so they don’t look bad next to smart people), and ruins the whole thing from within. Unfortunately it takes a while for effects to show up on the client side, at which point most of the hire-able good staff has left, a lot of funds have been wasted, and fixing the damage is like putting Humpty-Dumpty together again.

          1. Luna*

            Yup, all it takes is one idiot to slip through the cracks to bring the whole thing down.

            I think the problem occurs most often at organizations that have little to no pipeline for employee growth- there are entry level employees and then director-level mangers, and nothing in between. So every time a manager leaves a new one has to be brought in from the outside. Having some new blood isn’t a bad thing, but when it is constant it increases the chances of hiring someone incompetent. And in a higher level position they can do a lot more damage and are usually more difficult to get rid of.

      2. Bea*

        I’ve seen it happen. You get someone who interviews well enough and who ever thinks that someone is embellishing on things like quality receptionist experience???

        Yeeeeeeah then you get them into the slot and they are a trainwreck.

        The woman I tried training years ago in a very simple EA and light books (pay bills, cash checks kind of light.) was horrendous. Just explaining to her how to check packing lists to a shipment to confirm everything was there was mind blowing.

        She lasted 3 days after I was gone. My boss also was fighting himself because she too was 50ish and at least was generally nice. But absolutely unreachable on basic levels.

  9. The Original Flavored K*

    Okay, somebody set me straight: my understanding is that race, age above 45, religion, marital status, and pregnancy ARE protected classes and cannot be the stated reasons for passing over a candidate/terminating an employee. Which still leaves plenty of companies plenty of wiggle room, so long as they don’t SAY they are firing you/declining to hire you for the above.

    Have I misunderstood, and Alison is just saying that companies won’t fire people with xyz traits for fear of being accused of firing them FOR said traits, or am I misunderstanding the law again?

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      That second one. Alison is saying some companies are too wussy to even think about firing someone in those categories, regardless of the actual behavior that warrants termination.

      “Oh, we can’t fire Bob, he’s 55! He’ll sue!”
      “Yes, but he pooped in a potted plant.”
      “Doesn’t matter!”

    2. beanie beans*

      Yeah, I feel like that paragraph was written in a way that is misleading:

      “* The manager misunderstands the law. Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people because of the person’s race, age, or religion, or because they’re pregnant or have a disability.”

      You can’t fire people *on the basis* of the person’s race, age, or religion. You can fire someone who is incompetent, regardless of the race, age, or religion. But the incompetence is the reason, not their protected class.

    3. CatCat*

      So this gave me pause too: “Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people because of the person’s race, age, or religion, or because they’re pregnant or have a disability.”

      I had to reread this a couple times. I think what it means is “Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people *who are a certain* race, age, or religion, or *who are* pregnant or have a disability. ”

      I think the “because of” language is confusing. Certainly firing people “because of race” is a problem. Firing people who happen to be a race is not a problem if it is “because of” performance problems.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s not just that you can’t say that’s why you’re firing them. It can’t look like that’s why you’re firing them either. If I’m 62 and you fire me for over-use of Facebook, but you don’t fire my five under-40 colleagues for the exact same thing, I’m going to be able to argue it was age discrimination.

      This is one reason why companies like to apply rules very consistently.

      But it’s definitely true that many employers are way too risk-averse about this. If you talk to the person about the problems, document the issues and conversations, and follow a relatively consistent progressive discipline approach, you’re pretty likely to be able to defend your decisions. That doesn’t mean that it’s not still a pain to have to deal with a potential lawsuit from someone convinced that the real reason you fired them was their membership in a protected class, but the long-term damage of being held hostage to those fears is, I’d argue, greater.

      1. LKW*

        In those cases what I’ve seen is that a company may turn a blind eye to poor behavior for a bit but if there one or two people flout the rules egregiously then everyone gets swept away in the proverbial house cleaning.

      2. Mike C.*

        This exactly. It drives me up the wall how the mighty titans of business are seemingly shaking in their boots about the occasional firing for cause, or how following a process is a seemingly impossible task.

    5. animaniactoo*

      There have been 2 things that go on:

      1) Companies that fire people in those protected classes for specious reasons that are trumped up to look like that the excuse for firing them when really it is a matter of being in the protected class, and lawsuits that result from that in trying to prove it and grant these workers the protection they deserve.

      2) People who try to take advantage of being in one of said protected classes by claiming that very true reasons for letting them go are trumped up to get rid of them. With standing to be taken seriously because of companies that have acted as above.

      The latter situation is no fault of a company that has not discriminated but can be very expensive to deal with in litigation and other costs, and sometimes companies hesitate for fear of ending up there despite the fact that they can reliably prove that the employee is sub-par and their firing has nothing to do with whatever protected class they belong to. Because they still have to spend a lot of money they would rather not in order to prove it, and the amount of damage the employee is doing is apparently (rarely true, often hidden costs to this) is not as expensive as the litigation would be.

      1. MsMaryMary*

        I think your second point is why some companies or HR managers avoid firing people who belong to a protected class. Anyone can file a lawsuit (or file a complaint with the EEOC, or go to the media). So if the company has one wrong termination suit filed by an employee who was genuinely terrible at their job, they overreact by never firing anyone again.

    6. Investigate this*

      I spent an hour and a half yesterday being grilled on the entire period of my management of my office because the two people in the office with the most performance issues are also the two oldest, and they brought a complaint about ageism. I have made mistakes (MANY) as a manager, but my issues with these two employees really are based on performance. Nevertheless, it has not been a good week for me so far. And their complaint is going to make it harder for me to address their performance issues.

    7. LSP*

      So everyone has these traits, which include sex (including pregnancy and sometimes gender identity), race, religion (or lack thereof), marital status, national origin, color and age (although only people over a certain age are protected). Individuals with disabilities are also protected. Discrimination on the basis of any of these things are illegal, though it can be quite difficult to prove that you were the victim of this type of discrimination. This means that theoretically, if there were a company that had a history of hiring only women for a certain position, and a man applied and wasn’t hired, he could claim discrimination on the basis of his sex. However, he would have to be able to prove that he met all qualifications for the position otherwise, and that a woman who did not meet those qualifications as well or better than he did was hired instead.

      But, yes, many employers (especially in the government) choose to err on the side of keeping bad employees, rather than even risking the scandal that might come about if someone even makes the claim of discrimination. They worry about this less with employees that are in the majority (white, Christian, American, able-bodied, young, men, etc.). And because the way the current news cycle runs, many times the public only hears the allegation, and not the resolution, especially if the resolution is that the claim of discrimination is found to be baseless, and the employer is found to have done nothing wrong.

      1. Cordoba*

        “This means that theoretically, if there were a company that had a history of hiring only women for a certain position, and a man applied and wasn’t hired, he could claim discrimination on the basis of his sex.”

        This is not theoretical, has actually happened.

        The restaurant chain Hooters has settled several lawsuits from men who claimed that they were discriminated against as a result of their gender:

        In response they have contended that “being a female with a specific appearance” is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification for their business.

        1. Natalie*

          Although it’s important to note that Hooters’ BFOQ requirement has never (as far as I know) been tested in court – they’ve always settled out of court possibly because their case is a bit shaky. Abercrombie and other image-oriented places have tried and failed to claim BFOQ protection for discrimination against disabled people, women who veil, and so on.

      2. Elspeth*

        I don’t understand this, though. The worker is on a temporary contract and they could allow the contract to expire with no problem.

        1. LSP*

          Absolutely. The temp’s contract could just be let to lapse. I don’t think there is any actual claim of discrimination here, but it’s been an interesting tangential thread to walk down.

    8. Bea*

      It’s always the “they’ll SAY it’s because it’s age discrimination” or “they have ADA qualifications…” or my favorite “you can’t fire someone until x amount of time after an accident report.”

      They are scared of anything vaguely grazing a discrimination suit, assuming all cases opened on an employer will result in utter destruction. Instead of the fact that no, there has to be evidence. Being 55 isn’t enough evidence.

      1. Cordoba*

        From what I’ve seen it’s (unfortunately) hard enough for people with legitimate discrimination suits to be taken seriously and ultimately succeed; I’d imagine a spurious accusation of discrimination from a demonstrable incompetent would be unlikely to get very far at all.

        1. Lil Fidget*

          They usually don’t try to get far, they hope (often, correctly) that you’ll settle on the advice of legal to avoid the whole issue. Keeps your name out of the mud and often a small amount of money to a company is a lot to an individual – 50K is enough to make most people go away, where a lawyer might charge much more to take the case all the way to trial.

    9. Casper Lives*

      It’s the 2nd, and unfortunately, the company is right to be afraid. Anyone can file an EEOC claim for free (for the good reason that everyone has access to protection), or get a lawyer to file a suit (I’m a lawyer, and incompetent/fishing/down-on-their-luck attorneys are numerous). The company will pay a ton of money to fight the claim. The former employee invests time, but nothing else, for the good possibility the company will pay them to go away.

  10. DCompliance*

    So when the problem remains after this temp is told to look at an area she is neglecting, does anyone cycle back to the manager and advise there is still a problem? Is anyone bringing up the rudeness and not just the mistakes in her work? Because different managers are getting these complaints, is it possible they are not seeing an overall trend?

  11. Aphrodite*

    That picture is fantastic! Is that an early computer or maybe a kind of switchboard (the lights/switches on the right side)? The typewriter leads me to think it’s not yet a computer but who knows.

  12. animaniactoo*

    One thing you can do, LW, as hard as it feels to do, is to stop picking up after her. You complain to manager, they direct her to look at it, she does not, you make it happen, there is literally no real consequence for either of them here.

    On the other hand, if you complain to manager, they direct her to look at it, she does not, you go back to manager and say “This hasn’t happened, and clients X & Y are waiting on Lazy to finish it.” Again. And again. Until it becomes to visible and problematic for manager to ignore and wimp out of. Even if you have to kick it above him “We’ve been waiting for X report from Jane, and it’s not done yet. Brought it up with manager and no movement. Can you please help address this?” “Client Y is about to lose legal standing to pursue due to incorrectly filed paperwork. Brought to manager, but the caseworker involved has not corrected and we have 2 days to resolve before Client is denied Z. We appreciate any help you can give to get this resolved.”

    Also: Things she files incomplete without touching them to boost her numbers. Has anyone tried documenting how frequently this is happening, and showing up with proof to her manager or grandboss? Because it is entirely possible that they’re looking at her numbers and seeing what looks good and thinks these are mistakes she’s making that are just slipping through the cracks for someone who is showing a solid track record. Documenting can prove the numbers are a lie and potentially readjust them retroactively so that they’re showing the truth.

    1. Augusta Sugarbean*

      Agreed. I can’t remember where I heard the phrase (probably around here) is “make the problem visible”. The few times our management has actually stepped up and handled a problem is when someone makes it their pet project to endlessly annoy the crap out of them with questions/concerns/complaints about the person or problem. It takes a long time and a lot of work but it is possible to get it to the point of management not being able to ignore it anymore.

    2. Troutwaxer*

      “Brought to manager, but the caseworker involved has not corrected and we have 2 days to resolve before Client is denied Z.”

      In that case you might resolve it and tell the manager “I resolved it for her so the client wouldn’t lose Z.”

      Sorry, I posted this below and didn’t realize I wasn’t replying to the right message.

      1. animaniactoo*

        Yeah, if you really need to take care of it so that client won’t lose Z. However, in that case, I would add a note “This is the 4th time this week I have had to urgently resolve something for Lazy to prevent a client losing benefits.” (or whatever the consequence would be.)

        Because it’s one thing to note it (again), and it’s another to keep totaling it and make it bright shiny clear how often it is happening.

        1. nonymous*

          having worked for a couple managers now that expect staff to “help each other out” in the name of teamwork and cooperation, I’d add a totally legitimate commentary could be a discussion how fixing X/Y/Z affects their own workload. It can come from a place of asking for OT approval or asking for further delegation. Because theoretically, OP has a full week of work in front of her, so fixing lazy’s mistakes will set her back. It’s not like a healthy team environment where helping each other involves swaps.

    3. LKW*

      The other factor here is that perhaps the metric used is not the right way to measure success. For example, in hospitals, you would measure how quickly you could discharge a patient. Now there is a second component of frequency of readmission within a specified time period. Hospitals were discharging patients who were still sick because it made their numbers look good.

      Other example – back in the day you used to get points for IDing bugs in code and fixing them. Some people would write bugs in so they could then identify them and fix them.

      So maybe you need a better metric applied to everyone.

    4. CM*

      LW here, and this is a good idea. We know it’s happening, but we’ve not been meticulous about documenting it, which may go a long way if things get even further out of hand.

      Some of us have stopped picking up after her, but it’s also a bit of an uphill battle. The problem is that in our department, if we refuse to do her job for her, people out there take the fall – they lose out on jobs, struggle with their business, etc. A fair number of them are low-income or minimum wage workers too, who end up crying on the phone…to me, since part of my role is to take phone escalations. It often comes down to me biting the bullet to ensure an innocent party doesn’t suffer, or my manager himself telling me to just get it done.

      The latter case is where I’m willing to argue and stand up for myself within reason, but it’s the former one that tends to get us tied up in knots…

      1. Artemesia*

        Can you tell the boss that these calls will have to be forwarded to him or her to resolve or immediately go to her after such a call comes in and you resolve it. Make a BFD out of every fail like this.

      2. Tuesday Next*

        That sounds tough, but the phone escalations are a great tool to manage this problem. Are you reporting on how many escalations there are, the cause, and what the impact was?

      3. Lynca*

        I would start documenting. One of the big reason we’re getting new hires (not temps) is we made the problem visible.

        You’re not failing the people- she is by not doing her job.

    5. Tuesday Next*

      That’s what I came here to say. Can you avoid picking up after her?

      It makes it easier for management to ignore the problem because it’s “mysteriously” being solved.

      It helps her conceal her laziness and incompetence.

      And it’s probably impacting on your productivity.

      If you really can’t, can you document / communicate all the picking up you have to do and how it impacts your own work and your clients?

      “The teapot delivery will only be ready next Friday instead of Tuesday this week because Horrible Colleague filed the documentation without capturing it on the requisition system, and deleted the source material. I’ve had to recreate the teapot blueprint from scratch and ask the client to resubmit their artwork.”

  13. Nita*

    Oh, yikes… this is all way too familiar. I’m trying to resolve a very long dispute with a company whose client contact is just like this. There wouldn’t even be a dispute if the guy just did his job, or at least communicated better when he’s not able to do it. Upper management is aware of this, and has even been sued over this guy at least once. As far as I understand, the reason he’s still there is #6 on Allison’s list. It’s really gone to his head that he can cost someone thousands of dollars just by ignoring them, and he’s very much aware that as long as he doesn’t tick off the person who’s protecting him, there is no need to improve.

  14. KK*

    “The manager misunderstands the law”

    I have dealt with this and it stinks. We have a horrible manager at our office (in work ethic, attitude, and ability). Many, many people have brought up issues to her manager. They refuse to fire her because they think she will sue for discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is ridiculous. She has never ONCE openly spoke about her sexual orientation (she is an unmarried woman in her 50’s). Even if she were gay, we have multiple gay employees who are well liked/respected, etc. So, it baffles me as to why they think she would sue the company on this basis if she were fired. It’s super frustrating!

    1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain*

      But the thing is that she can sue the company on that basis — it doesn’t mean she is correct or that she will prevail in court — but she can absolutely sue. Getting sued for discrimination often means bad publicity, plus the costs of investigating usually by an outside company so as to be unbiased, and lawyer fees and personnel time, morale, etc. and it can get very costly to the employer whether it’s true or not. This is why so many employers will settle out of court just to make it all go away quickly and quietly even if the accusations are completely baseless; or, as in your case, just keep the problem person contained until they decide to leave.

      Story — feel free to skip:
      Many years ago we had a higher ranking sleaze bag at my university that was FINALLY fired after some pretty egregious behavior involving a drunk intern (who was only 18) at a university event and a hotel room — but it still took almost a year to get the guy fired. He immediately sued for discrimination based on sexual orientation (he was openly gay when he was hired but still claimed that no one knew previously). It made the newspaper before the the university was even served — not the drunk underage intern in the hotel room part, just the suing the university for discrimination bit. The university was totally unable to give their side publicly because it could jeopardize the actual case (and I doubt the intern would have loved to have such a private matter aired like that and then they too could have sued). Apparently the university tried to settle, but sleaze bag didn’t like their “low ball” offer.

      What didn’t make it into the newspaper 2 years later, is that the university was found not liable on all counts and the judge ripped this sleaze bag up one side and down the other during the judgement. In the mean time the university needed to hire outside investigators and lawyers, multiple employees at all levels had to spend weeks giving depositions and testifying in court, and the years-long ordeal destroyed the morale of the department so that about 70% left before it was all over — we lost some pretty good people. But we won, yea.

      1. Casper Lives*

        Wow! That’s an extreme example of why companies and the government fear firing people. On a smaller scale, my mother experienced a lot of grief when an employee “Anna” was laid off for stealing her can of soup 1+ times a week (on camera, Anna would go in my mother’s desk, take a can of soup, and walk away). My mother asked her to stop stealing the soup because it was her lunch, Anna was given several written and verbal warnings not to take things from coworkers, and eventually my mother had to lock her desk. I think Anna might have stolen food from others too. Anna was laid off (not even fired!) during a downsizing. Anna filed an EEOC complaint and started a lawsuit stating she was fired for being a black woman. A long time and a lot of money later, the company was found to have acted correctly. Now the company pays out for claims because it costs less time and money.

    2. Karen K*

      Are you telling us that just because she’s in her 50s and unmarried, her manager assumes she is gay? That’s pretty messed up, right there.

      1. KK*

        Well, not exactly. It’s kind of a unique situation. She is the legal guardian of her drug dealer nephew’s two biological daughters (the nephew and his wife are both in jail). Her so-called best friend (also a woman) moved in with her at that time, supposedly to help raise the two girls. She refers to the woman as her housemate, and has never said that there is a romantic relationship between them. However, right or wrong, I think people assume she is gay because she and the housemate (who we have met at holiday parties) both have crew hair cuts and dress in generally masculine clothing.

  15. kajastet*

    You mention a bad employee might be protected by a VIP. At the interviewing/hiring phase, how could a good manager approach this conversation with the VIP? Has anyone done this successfully?

  16. CatCat*

    My experience in government is also sometimes a person is kept in place to hold the position. If the position goes unfilled for some period of time, the department loses the position. So that may be a factor as well until there is a successful recruitment of someone permanent.

  17. Artemesia*

    I would be VERY direct about this. It is ridiculous that she is being re-hired repeatedly as a temp. The OP and peers need to be VERY direct to her hiring manager that a new temp is needed because she not only cannot do the job but is sabotaging the job by ‘hiding undone work’, marking work completed that is not etc etc etc. She has been given feedback and still refuses to do the work. And the turning her chair and ignoring is alone enough to send her on her way. ‘What do we need to do, to get a different temp when her contract is up?’ Nothing tactful or subtle here.

    And if it doesn’t happen, stop cleaning up after her and let it bite the boss if that is possible.

  18. Government Employee*

    Man, as a government employee this rings so true. I have a coworker where I genuinely can’t tell if she’s incompetent or purposefully sabotaging us. She’s been here decades and I think they’re just hoping she retires.

    1. LKW*

      That has got to be incredibly frustrating. Been in a similar situation where I just couldn’t tell if the person was an idiot or if he was trying to cause problems either to “save” the situation or just to make my life more difficult. Honestly, it could have easily been all three. He wasn’t dumb, but he wasn’t good at his job either.

  19. Buffy*

    This was a little oddly worded to me –

    “Some managers mistakenly believe they can’t fire people because of the person’s race, age, or religion, or because they’re pregnant or have a disability.”

    The first few times I read it, I thought it had the opposite meaning. Maybe it’s just me, but a clearer explanation would be “because a person happens to be a certain race, age, or religion”?

  20. CM*

    Hi Alison –

    I’m the person who sent in this inquiry, and thank you so much for responding. The insight into what might be going on behind the scenes alleviates a lot of the “But why?!” frustration that’s been festering in the office for the past few months.

    That being said, it also made me realise that we’re probably never going to know the exact reasons why – if it does come down to being wimpy, our boss is hardly going to tell us (same goes for difficulties with procedure and the law, or connections). I used to assume it was difficulties with hiring/firing procedure and conflict avoidance, but as time wore on (which brought contract expiry, new staff recruitment, and training programs), it seemed like there was every opportunity to replace her – and they refuse. It may forever be a mystery.

    Reflecting a little on how my co-workers and I have handled our complaints, our approach has been fairly direct – but never direct enough to assert that she should be replaced, which is an intriguing thought. I’m a little hesitant to overstep my boundaries, but maybe there will come a time where enough is enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually came down to the complications of a much bigger problem, however – from what I hear, this department has a long history and messy office politics that goes back way before I was even hired.

    Thanks again for the fantastic input, and I’m happy to engage with anyone else who wants to weigh in on this. Cheers!

    1. drpuma*

      It’s more work than you and your colleagues should have to do, but I am curious if any of you have ever followed up w/ your manager on your complaints about Temp? I’m thinking something like, “Hey Boss, I’m curious if you’ve had a chance to talk to Temp yet about those mistakes I mentioned 2 weeks ago? They are still showing as unresolved in the system.”

      1. CM*

        Generally we don’t need to – the nature of our work is high volume, comes in and goes out quick and all. What usually happens is that the mistake she made has snowballed into something so huge that a senior colleague or different department has to handle it, or she fixes it on the spot…and then continues to be sloppy on all the new tasks that go her way. It’s a big part of why telling her to fix the problem never works, she’s just going to create ten more in the next hour if she doesn’t fundamentally change how she works.

    2. Risha*

      One occasional reason for this that I haven’t seen raised yet – does she by any chance have an obscure specialty? It’s rare to be the sole expert in something, but sometimes it happens that you’re one of 50 people in the country who are an expert in a rare software package or the like, and if the other 49 are currently employed…

      1. CM*

        Pretty confident that this isn’t the case – we have public rosters so I’ve seen what she’s worked on every day, and it’s nothing special.

        Here’s another thing – when she’s been off work, I’ve taken over her job while she fine and I’ve demonstrated I can clear three months worth of her backlog in three days. My co worker has shown the same when she covers her. It’s a true puzzle.

        1. SusanIvanova*

          When Coworker Coffeecup finally got fired, I went through his bug list and knocked out a dozen of them that morning. Turned out our manager had been assigning him all the easy things because part of his PIP was to fix one bug per day. He couldn’t even manage to take 5 minutes/day – 30 if I’m being charitable – to do his job.

    3. LCL*

      One possible reason for keeping her, which I was hesitant to post earlier because it is a rare scenario, is that management knows she is an incompetent worker but is keeping her to have an ally and demoralize the permanent union workers. Management’s thought process in these situations is ‘the pack doesn’t like her? Good! Reason enough to keep her.’ I know this sounds totally unlikely to people that work for small companies, but in a giant organization, that can hire and keep temps that don’t do anything irreplaceable, it is possible.

  21. CM*

    Fantastic article, Alison. A lot of these issues have come up here before and it was interesting to see them all laid out in such a comprehensive way. You should put this in your next book!

  22. MuseumChick*

    In this cases, I’ve found one of the only things that works is to make it a headache for your manager to keep hearing complaints. Obviously, don’t got to them about little things but make the conversations regarding real issues as frequent as they need to be “Last month we talking about Jane not completing X and Y in files. I know you spoke to her but it continues to be an issue and is effect my ability to do my job effectively.” Next discussion: “We are still having issues with Jane not completing X and Y. This is really slowing down our productivity, how do you want us to processed?” Next discussion: “I have to bring up Jane again. I’ve found X files she worked on in Y time frame that incomplete but filed as complete. This is going to/has causes issues with A, B, and C.”

  23. Luna*

    Oh man, I’m sorry you have to deal with this OP. I have worked with this exact same person and it really damages morale for the entire group when left unchecked for too long. In my experience it is almost always a case of #1 (managers are too wimpy to deal with it).

    My advice would be to get together with your other coworkers who have also complained and approach the manager as a group, if you can. Make sure to keep the tone of the conversation polite (you don’t want the manager to feel ganged up on) and focused on the temp’s behavior, not the manager’s lack of action. Bring concrete examples of the most serious problems (losing checks, hiding work instead of completing it) and clearly express your concerns about the repercussions they could have. The only way to get the manager to do something is to force them to face reality, and make them understand that it will cause more problems and create more work for the manager if the temp is allowed to stay.

      1. MassMatt*

        This sounds satisfying but I doubt it would achieve what you want. Grandboss is likely to be annoyed at getting looped in to something from a lower level, and boss is likely to get angry about being undermined. Especially in a dysfunctional organization, as seems to be the case here. Might be a good way to get yourself fired, or at least burn a bridge with your boss.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      And bring some payroll numbers, too. That can really open some eyes.

      How many people have to spend how long on correcting an error? That’s the people-hours. Multiply that times something reasonable for your state, and that’s the rough cost of correcting the errors. (Around here, I use $100/hour/person to estimate how expensive meetings are for the company, and that might be low. In your area, the number will be different but the idea is the same.)

  24. Lynca*

    I work in government (not federal) but our temps are contracted which has added complications when addressing performance and termination. Even though we are “at-will” they still have a lot of protections due to how they’re hired compared to our direct hire employees. This behavior would get you on a PIP very quickly as a direct hire of my agency, but with a temp it would be a much more protracted battle with required documentation and having to take this to a seperate office to actually address it. So it’s a huge PITA and most conflict avoidant managers choose to ignore rather than go through the steps.

    But the typical response is to not to renew if the temp is terrible. It is the easiest out. The fact they keep renewing is a huge red flag that something is wrong. I think it’s management ignoring the problem this is creating with other employees because they have /somebody/ and hiring is difficult, etc.

  25. whistle*

    LW, is this person employed by the Government or a by a Contractor? If the latter, there are many more possibilities as to why it seems that nothing is being done in this case.

  26. KHB*

    I hope this isn’t venturing too far off topic – and apologies if so – but I’d be interested in some more general thoughts on the ethics and etiquette of pushing for a coworker to be fired. In some past letters (I’m thinking in particular of the saga of Rachel, Monica, and the tickling incident), the advice seems to be that you need to accept that management has made their decision not to fire the person, and if you keep pushing them about it, you’re the one who’s the problem. But here, the advice is to make waves, and if that doesn’t work, to make bigger ones.

    I realize that those two cases differ in a lot of ways – Monica’s infraction was a one-time thing and she seemed to feel bad about it, for example, whereas here the temp has an ongoing performance problem. But not every problem coworker is so clearly on one side of the line or the other. For those of us who may be in more ambiguous situations, are there any general guidelines as to when it’s appropriate to speak up and when it’s better to keep your head down?

    1. Nita*

      I think it’s appropriate to speak up if there’s a chance that management is not aware that there is a problem. For example, a cashier is habitually rude to customers, but 99% of the customers are in a hurry, leave and never come back – so word never gets to the store owner that this person is costing them business. Or a bank employee misplaces or shreds important documents once they’ve made a copy, but these documents won’t be needed by the client for another decade – again, it will be a long time before the problem comes to light on its own, and lots of damage will be done before that.

    2. Observer*

      One key thing is what is the potential impact to your work or safety. In that saga, no one was really at risk, nor should there have been any real impact to anyone’s work.

      Here there may not be any safety issues but the OP and the rest of the coworkers are being seriously negatively affected on an ongoing basis. So the starting point is very, very different.

    3. BRR*

      I believe past advice has been to focus on how it impacts your work. One of my coworkers does data entry and is not detail oriented. I pointed out these errors to my colleague but after noticing how frequent they were happening I brought it to our manager’s attention saying I noticed this is happening and it’s impacting my work. After some pretty egregious errors, I did blurt out something along the lines of “is this going to be addressed?” which is not the most professional attitude but this person cannot do the basic aspects of their job. For something like Monica and Rachel, I think you might be able to ask some version of what is going to be done about this.

      1. KHB*

        So I guess I’m thinking about cases where either it’s not clear how to extrapolate future impact from past events, or else there’s room for ambiguity about how much of an impact on colleagues’ work is appropriate. In a highly collaborative environment, for example, people might be constantly handing off projects to one another or double-checking others’ work and correcting their mistakes. In cases like that, “it’s impacting my work” isn’t enough – it needs to be “it’s impacting my work too much.”

        In my own case (which I struggled with for ages, but which is now resolved), my coworker – call him Basil – had a history of making Mistake X. The mistakes were infrequent enough – maybe every 3-6 months – that each one could be treated like an isolated incident, but each one was a big deal and caused a lot of extra work for a lot of people. It would have been reasonable to fire Basil the very first time he made Mistake X. But Basil, like Monica, seemed genuinely sorry and willing to try really hard not to do it again. But then he did it again. And again. Eventually some colleagues and I went to the boss to say “This is too much – Basil needs to be fired,” and the boss put Basil on his final warning. Nevertheless, the mistakes kept coming – but each time, there were extenuating circumstances that made the boss too reluctant to declare any one of them to be the straw to break the camel’s back. Eventually, Basil made a Mistake X that was so egregious that even he saw the writing on the wall, and he preemptively quit without notice to avoid being fired.

        So that’s the end of that. (Well, not quite – we still haven’t gotten permission to replace him.) In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if we’d gathered the courage to talk to the boss about it sooner. Each Mistake X that Basil made without being fired reinforced the thinking that “just one” Mistake X isn’t that bad, which may have ultimately made it harder to get rid of him.

    4. SusanIvanova*

      I didn’t push for Coffeecup to be fired, I just told my manager that I would never work with him on another project. I’d spent 2 weeks waiting for him to do something he was supposedly an expert in and that I hadn’t so much as looked at in 20 years, then did a google search, tweaked what I found, and had it up and running in two days. Eventually everyone had refused to work with him.

      It turned out part of the delay was that upper management thought that trying to replace someone at that point in the release cycle would be too disruptive, and just firing him and leaving the position unfilled would put the position at risk of being taken away. Sure enough, it was just over a month between us shipping and him getting fired.

  27. De Minimis*

    No idea if this is the case [probably not] but it’s something I ran into at my former government job.

    The temp could be part of a larger contract with another entity [not the temp agency] and your employer doesn’t want to cause issues with that entity. We ran into this with our janitorial service, where we contracted with the tribe [whose community we were serving] to provide janitorial and groundskeeping services. Some of the janitorial work was pretty slipshod, and there were a lot of complaints, but nothing was done because they weren’t our employees, and the powers that be did not want to create conflict with the tribe [who had put quite a bit of money into our facility.]

    It’s unlikely that is the case here, but I wanted to give an example of when political considerations can come into play when it comes to temps and government positions.

  28. Enginerd*

    If you’re working for the US government you’ve answered your own question. The only issue I’ve ever seen anyone fired from s government job for is mischarging time. I’ve seen people caught sleeping on the job, watching porn at work, one guy was busted using work electronics to order high prices hookers while on work travel, fake disability claims, charging per diem from two locations at the same time and my personal favorite the idiot on travel who crashed a rental car into a guard shack on a military base because he was high and was subsequently arrested for having the drugs in the car. None of them were fired at most a verbal reprimand. But if you claim you were in the office for more or less hours than you were actually at work they’ll show you the door.

    1. London Calling*

      I know that is all deplorable behaviour but gotta say, those have a certain insouciant DGAF you can’t touch me ner ner ner style that I can’t help being amused by.

    2. Been There, Done That*

      You’ve apparently worked in different government offices than I have. I’ve seen quite few government employees fired over my career. In fact, I found it MUCH harder to fire someone during my 3 year venture out into private industry. There are certainly steps that have to be done, and your paper trail needs to be impeccable, but it’s completely doable. I’ve seen a hispanic male manager fired for just being completely incompetent, a woman fired for disclosure of confidential cultural artifact locations, a white male manager fired (and jailed) for illegally directing contracts to a relative’s business. Those are just the ones I have personal knowledge of.

      Contractors are even easier. I’m in the process right now of explaining to one of my contractor’s that one of his employees is simply not doing acceptable level of work and we have 3 options: he gets the employee up to standard & goes back and fixes what was done to unacceptable quality, he puts someone else on our project who fixes things and does better work going forward, or I don’t add any more funds to the contract (it’s an IDIQ that has met the minimum obligation) and put it out to bid again. I think he’s going with option 2 but I’m prepared for 3 as well (frankly don’t think 1 is possible but we’ll see).

  29. Radius20*

    I worked in a situation like this for more than a year. It was obvious after a few short weeks that there was absolutely no hope and all of the training in the world could not help this level of incompetence. However, he was untouchable for a long time. The managers were fully aware of what was going on. Why didn’t they do anything? Because the managers were incompetent and they really didn’t care. As long as his coworkers were there to sweep up his mess behind him, it didn’t affect management enough to motivate them to deal with the situation. Lazy management causes a lot of problems!

  30. Argh!*

    I have a report that I’d love to fire due to multiple performance issues, but my boss won’t let me because “the next person could be worse.” I actually know someone who would love the job and be an excellent team member, so that’s just not true.

    Yes, I’m looking for another job, partly due to this issue. This report is dragging down the performance of the unit, and the time I have to take to manage/micromanage/correct performance issues is dragging down my effectiveness, too. It’s even more demoralizing that all the work I do won’t add up to a separation. This report knows that they can get away with almost anything because my boss doesn’t have my back.

    1. animaniactoo*

      “the next person could be worse” “that’s true, but they could also be better” “statistically, it’s unlikely unless we really don’t know what we’re doing when we interview and hire new people.” “so could the person you get to replace me, or Fred, or Wilma, when we quit out of frustration over having to keep working with them.”

    2. Antilles*

      my boss won’t let me because “the next person could be worse.”
      Wow, that’s a terrible argument, since you could say that for basically every single employee ever. There’s always the possibility of hiring someone worse – I mean, sure he held the CEO up at gunpoint last week, but there are still worse people we could employ!
      The more reasonable way to look at this is to consider the *odds* of hiring someone who’s actively worse. If the employee is actively wrecking the performance of the unit and costing you other employees, the odds are heavily tilted towards your next employee being better rather than worse.

    3. Bea*

      I got similar pushback months ago about a former team member that was not picking up on his duties at all. “We’ve tried others but at least he keeps showing up and trying…” was the summary of their reasoning for making us suffer through him screwing things up constantly.

      They gave him 4 months in the end before finally getting rid of him. I’m still friends with my former team and just heard the news and laughed at how ludicrous the management continues to be.

    4. paul*

      One of the biggest reasons my friend recently quit a fairly high level job in his field here (and moved, sad face) was because his boss made it so hard to fire people *unless* he could show they were actively abusing clients–apparently her policy was that you had to take a full year of documentation and PIPs before you terminated someone. I’m allf or requiring documentation but a damn year…

      1. NW Mossy*

        I learned from an employment lawyer recently that being slow to act on performance issues can actually create more risk for a company, because it creates a perception that the issues can’t be that serious if it takes so long to address them. The longer you let an underperforming employee float along, the easier it is for them to make the argument that their performance isn’t *that* bad and that it’s a smokescreen for discriminatory practices.

  31. Marie B.*

    I have a relative who is Canadian. I’m not sure if this is true at all levels of government there, but where she is almost all people who get hired with the government start as temps. High level positions are the exception. Even as temps they are in the union right away and if they are let go or their contract is not renewed there has to be detailed paperwork with a trail and the reasons for why. I was surprised when she first told me all this. They can’t just not renew for no reason without a paper trail. If this letter writer is American (please correct me if I am wrong) it would be different of course but I just wanted to throw out what I learned from my cousin about temps and the government.

    1. Wordy Nerd*

      I work for the Canadian federal government and this isn’t true most places. There are definitely some people who start as temps (especially at lower levels of responsibility) but the majority of people are hired as employees, and for mid to high-level positions it’s pretty much everyone. However, sometimes there will be a temp in a position for a few years until the actual hiring is completed (government hiring is sloooooow).

      Also, temps aren’t in the unions right away – only public servants are in the unions. Temps are employed by the temp agency and not by the government, so they’re not public servants. You can terminate a specific temp employee anytime – terminating the relationship with the temp agency itself would require more paperwork, but a specific temp is easy to get rid of and replace with another one.

      Your relative might be thinking of “casual employees” instead of “temps” – casual employees are federal employees on short-term contracts (max of 120 days in a calendar year). They are federal employees and are therefore in the union and harder to remove; however, they don’t have the same benefits as permanent employees (they don’t get the pension, they don’t have the health benefits, they don’t get sick days or vacation days).

      To further confuse things, a lot of lower-level employees who start as casual can bounce back and forth between casual and temp status for a while – they’ll be casual for 120 days and then temp until the end of the year and then back to casual the next year. I did this myself for over 2 years until I got a permanent position.

    2. Jaybeetee*

      I’m also a Canadian fed, and used to be a temp, and…no. Temps are not part of the union, and it’s pretty easy to get rid of bad temp if the higher-ups want to. They don’t even have talk to the person directly, just notify the temp agency that it isn’t working out, and they do the dirty work. In fact, if the LW’s managers are renewing this temps’s contracts, they’re putting *more* work into keeping her than they would into getting rid of her and recruiting someone else (since they’ve been recruiting during this time anyway). As Wordy Nerd says, your relative might be thinking of casual or term workers. With casuals, it’s such a short length of time it’s probably easier to let them ride it out usually. With terms, you can fire a bit more easily than a permanent employee, but there’s still a fair amount of paperwork and documentation required (including extra training, reshuffling of tasks where possible, etc), so the employee generally has to be *really* bad for management to bother with this.

      That said, I have seen bad temps linger (to the end of their contract anyway, and just not renewed), largely due to either conflict aversion (I had a manager hesitate to let go of a bad temp, even though he could just notify the agency and didn’t have to tell her himself, because he still didn’t want to have to actually fire someone) or out of touch management who don’t realize how bad this person is. That the LW says the managers at her workplace *must* know how bad she is sets off alarms to me, because it suggests there’s a possibility they *don’t* know. LW and her colleagues should tell their manager in crystal-clear terms that this temp is a Problem. There’s a possibility they really don’t know how bad it is. Or…they just don’t care, as long as the work is getting done overall.

    3. Marie B*

      My relative doesn’t work for the Canadian Federal government. She works for a level of government in Canada but it is not Federal.

  32. Mockingjay*

    I presume that this is a general support services contract (which most Federal contracts are), which means that the contract is between the Government agency and the company for only work performed. It’s up to the company to figure out the staffing per bid, which means they can keep a sub-par employee around. The employee receives tasks from the Government, but the company monitors her performance and handles any issues (or not).

  33. Kathenus*

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned (apologies if I missed it) is for you and your coworkers to document the issues and then ask for a meeting with your/her manager as a group to present the information and your concerns. Take the ‘power in numbers’ approach, sometimes it’s harder to ignore than when it’s a bunch of separate one on one discussions.

  34. Malibu Stacey*

    Out of curiosity, those in HR or upper management, if multiple departing employees are citing the same problem employee or manager, does that make any difference?

  35. Observer*

    I’m going with “someone is protecting her.” The only other reasonable explanation would be worry about backfilling the position, but if the department is doing intake / recruitment, that doesn’t sound like it’s the issue. And even if her contract is technically with the government agency, but with a contracting agency, these businesses are not likely to go to bat for someone with serious issues. It’s easy enough for them to move that person out and they generally don’t want to tick off the people that make the contract happen. I don’t see any reason for this to be any different.

  36. overcaffeinatedandqueer*

    It’s so frustrating to see this happen! I have a coworker who doesn’t do her job well either. Granted, probably better than the coworker here, but still. My coworker regularly falls asleep at her desk, works verrrry slowly, makes excuses for why things are not done sooner/faster, and is generally annoying. But she’s still been working there for years! Meanwhile I can’t get taken on permanently because reasons.

    My two cents: the OP being in a government office (or maybe the coworker is in a protected class?) has something to do with it.

  37. Fake old Converse shoes (not in the US)*

    Nepotism, protected by a higher up or office politics. Those three always come to mind.

  38. Ms. Ann Thropy*

    This happens at non-government jobs, too. Once, on a temporary (contract) job, I worked on a large project with a group of other attorneys. One in particular made a practice of slacking. He would disappear for hours. Eventually he became so emboldened that he would sign in in the morning, leave for the entire day, and return to sign out at the end of the day. Needless to say, the rest of us were left to pick up his slack. When another attorney and I finally directly complained to our manager, noting that the firm billing the client for hours he didn’t work could be considered fraudulent. Exactly nothing was done.

  39. Competent Commenter*

    This is really grasping at straws, but what if the OP contacts her whistleblower representative/department to see if any aspect of this situation would be appropriate for a whistleblower complaint?

    I worked at a public university years ago where one manager was just awful. His grandboss effectively blocked my making a complaint about his behavior by not telling me you had to officially make complaints within 30 days of the incident and then sitting on my complaints. I eventually called the whistleblower number and described my boss’s behavior. They noted which items violated university policy—in my case, pressuring me to work during a mandatory work stoppage period and asking me to use personal resources to do university business. They were pretty excited that these things were in writing, too. There were worse things he’d done but they fell into the category of being a horrible jerk rather than violating university policy.

    So the OP might want to write a list of all the issues—both what the temp is doing, like losing checks and falsifying information, and what the supervisors are doing, like renewing contracts for someone who is violating university policy. See if any of those things will qualify you for a whistleblower complaint. Good luck! This sounds awful.

  40. Laura*

    The government has very loose requirements for keeping a temp worker. They just don’t extend the temp’s contract. There’s nothing the union can do about it, especially if the employee is a terrible worker. In fact, LW and her coworkers could go to the union now and complain that they are being punished because they constantly have to clean up after this temp. If they all went (separately), the union would talk to management and management would have to address it, or at least come up with some valid reason why she’s not being let go at the end of the contract. It doesn’t sound like there is one, other than management’s too lazy to do anything about it, either by holding the temp responsible for her own work or by not making the effort to hire someone else (I’ve worked for the federal government for 30 years, most of them with temp workers in the area–and I was a temp worker myself for 7 of those years).

    1. Laura*

      I did forget to mention that the government is notorious (at least on the inside) for having incompetent managers. Sometimes the only way to get them to do things is to go to the union (I am obviously a union member). Our managers are hired largely by favoritism–and so was our latest HR person. Our only recourse is the union.

  41. Susquehanna Hat Company*

    I managed an employee who was terrible. She was relatively competent at her job (when she choose to do it, which was about 40% of the time). She had been with the organization forever and knew the community inside and out. She had the ear of the board. She told me numerous times that she would never retire because it was her social outlet and that she needed to “be with people”. She was also the lead gossip for both internal and external news. She refused to make any changes – she wouldn’t change her schedule, the processes that she used, she refused to learn new technology or take on any task that she viewed as additional work.

    As a new manager, I first made all of the mistakes that Allison points out. I soft pedaled the problem, I talked around issues, I tried not to make her mad. I also learned that wasn’t going to work so I became direct, I wrote out in detail what was expected of her and went over it in person point by point, finally I put her on a PIP with metrics, deadlines, etc. and made it crystal clear to her that if she did not meet the expectations that her position would not be funded in the next year.

    Needless to say, she didn’t make any of the metrics or deadlines. I sat her down and told her that as of the end of this budget her position was being eliminated. Suddenly she was the world’s best community organizer, she got her friends to call board members at home and work, she set up a web page and Facebook page to save her job, she literally organized protests at several board meetings. Through it all I kept my cool. I had all of the documentation showing that she wasn’t doing her job after I had given her every opportunity to do so.

    Guess who lost their job in the end?

  42. Stellaaaaa*

    It is very, very hard to find good employees, especially if we’re talking about the category of office job that is basic yet still needs to be performed competently. It’s possible that this temp is genuinely the best candidate that your company could find for what they’re willing to pay, especially if your company is set on using temps.

  43. Govt Manager*

    Just a guess, but I suspect they do know and are making sure to hire someone qualified this time around and replace her once the new person is in place. But sometimes losing a temp means losing an FTE that can be hard to get back if you fire some one first.

  44. Keep Your Eyes On The Prize*

    If she is truly that terrible and management does nothing then shun her. Have no one in the office speak to her unless absolutely necessary. No good mornings, how was your weekend, no asking her to lunch. Nothing. If she speaks to you about something non work related, ignore her. Do not do any of her work. If her supervisor asks you about her missing work, plead ignorance and your own heavy workload. This is a nuclear option and should only be used if you genuinely feel that she is a drain on everyone and needs to be gone.

      1. feminazgul*

        I mean, she is apparently “famously” rude and ignores people all the time when they try to bring up concerns. I don’t think ostracism/ignoring someone outside of basic work civility in this situation really rises to the level of “bullying.”

          1. CM*

            LW here and honestly, most of us already do this. It’s not particularly difficult because it’s how she’s behaved towards us from the start…except we don’t give her work to pick up after, haha.

            I have to disagree that it’s bullying, especially since everyone independently decided to behave this way towards her after repeated instances of her rudeness towards each of us. Once I went to address a mistake she made – politely – and she ignored me the whole time. After I cleared my throat pointedly, she said ‘Oh…I didn’t realise you were there.’

            Do unto others, in my opinion. If she wanted to be treated with friendliness and decency she should have done the same. Either way, she doesn’t seem to care much…

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